Domestic politics and global development. What to expect from Spain in the construction of the post-2030 Agenda

By Iliana Olivié / Part of the European Development Policy Outlook Series

The recent SDG Summit held in New York centered around a much-discussed mid-term review of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), given that eight years have now passed since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for achieving the SDGs and that there are only seven more years to go.

Global development agendas shaped by international events

To a large extent, the social summits of the 90s,such as the world summit for social development held in Copenhagen in 1995, influenced the approach to development of the 2000 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the predecessor of the SDGs. At the same time, global events, such as the Great Recession, a changing geopolitical landscape with an emerging Global South, as well as the criticisms of the MDGs, led to a new approach to development that was summarized in the SDGs. From a wider and more complex approach to development, these goals attributed a more prominent role to climate change, inequalities, economic development and institutions than the previous agenda.

Along the same line, we should expect a post-2030 Agenda that is shaped by international events: the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the increasingly visible consequences of an accelerated climate change, the real or perceived success and failures of the current agenda, the changing weight of different nations in the international arena or the proactivity of different countries in shaping the agenda. As for the latter, the attitudes of countries will again depend on domestic politics. Since domestic politics evolve, too, countries’ narratives about global development change over time.

For instance, in France there has been a rather low level of ownership of the 2030 Agenda since its adoption. This might be explained, at least partially, by the geographical focus of French development assistance in Africa, a region where the Agenda 2063 – Africa’s own development masterplan -, is more clearly identified as the development roadmap than the global SDGs. The case of Spain can also illustrate this phenomenon.

2030 Agenda in Spain: from mainstream to social-democrat

When the SDGs were adopted in 2015, the Spanish central government was run by the conservative Popular Party (PP), with Mariano Rajoy as Prime Minister. In a bipartisan scheme with a low level of Parliamentary representation but a significant degree of political participation of Basque, Catalan and Canarian nationalist parties, global development and international cooperation policies were extensively accepted and unenthusiastically backed by the whole of the Spanish political spectrum. In line with the country’s policy-taking attitude towards global affairs since the transition to democracy, Spain made only mild contributions to the 2030 Agenda but adopted it, once approved, as the main operational framework for development cooperation policy. In short, in this pre-polarization and pre-fragmentation political phase, the SDGs were seen as a rather technical and cross-partisan scheme of what global development should be.

When Pedro Sánchez came to power in 2018, as a result of Rajoy’s vote of no confidence, the socialist party (PSOE) Sánchez represented had adopted the 2030 Agenda as some sort of new social-democrat roadmap. The new PM reading of the Agenda went well beyond development cooperation and, even, foreign policy. The government’s narrative of the Agenda was that of a framework for a more environmentally and socially sustainable, and more technologically advanced, Spanish economy. This went in parallel with a higher international profile of Spain’s political representatives, with a stronger and more vocal presence in international institutions, and particularly in the EU. In this context, the recently emerged Podemos -resulting from the pre-existing communist party and the mid-2010s social movements- ignored, or sometimes even rejected, an Agenda it considered excessively globalist, with some negative impacts on local development. As for PP and the newcomer Ciudadanos (Cs), with political responsibilities in a large part of the territory via the governments of Autonomous Communities and Municipalities, they explicitly aligned with the 2030 Agenda, with specific implementation programs and strategies, for instance, those of Madrid’s regional and local governments.

Nevertheless, with a much less pro-active attitude on the part of PP, Cs or Podemos, what was initially seen as a rather technocratic list of development objectives, fairly shared by the whole of the Spanish Parliament, turned to be seen by part of the public opinion and the political spectrum as a political left-wing agenda, mostly “owned” by PSOE.

A fragmented agenda in a fragmented political landscape

In spite of this, when the 2019 general elections resulted in the left coalition formed by PSOE and Unidas Podemos (UP), the Agenda fell under UP’s responsibilities. In accordance with the party’s political vision, the Agenda was then re-read with local (rather than global) and social (rather than economic) lenses, while both economy and foreign policy and development cooperation were run by PSOE ministers. At that point, the Agenda was fragmented (social vs. economic, global vs. local).

At the same time, before the war in Ukraine and the pandemic, the 2030 Agenda gained prominence in Spain among the private sector; a prominence that the MDGs never had beyond the aid sphere. Included in most communication strategies, the 2030 Agenda became a sort of buzzword. Ibex-35 companies of all sectors, such as for instance the bank BBVA launched specific campaigns or even temporarily changed their logos.

In this context, the right-wing nationalist party VOX adopted an explicit anti-2030 Agenda position that structured its anti-globalization narrative. The party proposed instead the Agenda España, including a list of twenty alternative objectives for local and domestic development ranging from the unity of Spain to the Iberosfera (as a reference to the influential role Spain has or should have in Latin America), fair wages, equality or the improvement of economic conditions in rural areas. 

In the fragmented political landscape that now characterises Spain as well as other European countries, the odds are that the governments to come in the short and medium term will have to be in the form of coalitions. At the time of this writing, the Parliament resulting from the general election held in July 2023 is defined mainly by four parties: Sumar (which inherits the political space of Podemos) and PSOE on the left, and PP and VOX, on the right. In the event that PP would be able to form a government in the short term, this would have to happen with the support of VOX. Maybe partly for this reason, PP has significantly distanced itself from the 2030 Agenda, strongly evolving from the initial position adopted by Rajoy’s PP, and despite the inclusion of a reference to the Agenda in the programme for the latest general elections.

What next?

There are still seven years to go for the launch of the post-2030 Agenda; a period during which the new roadmap will be manufactured with the participation of different countries. Such participation will be defined by a series of factors, including the different governments’ evolving sympathy for global development agendas and their readings of what the international and domestic economic and social system should be. The global development agenda will then crystallize, for the following decade and a half, what the world and domestic politics will have looked like in the years to come until 2030.

This means that, in the event of a greater political polarization in Europe, the region currently championing for multilateralism and global development agendas on poverty, climate change, or health could end up with no clear proposals on global development, jeopardising the very continuity of development agendas.

Iliana Olivié is Senior Analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute and Associate Professor at the Department of Applied & Structural Economics & History of the Complutense University of Madrid. She is the Director of the ETTG and EADI Vice-President and country-representative for Spain.

Image: Ministry of the Presidency. Government of Spain on Wikimedia

Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of the EADI Debating Development Blog or the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes.